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Review: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Vampires in the Lemon Grove CoverReview: Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Author: Karen Russell
Genre: Short Stories
Publisher: Knopf
Rating: 4.75 out of 5


From the author of the New York Times best seller Swamplandia!—a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—a magical new collection of stories that showcases Karen Russell’s gifts at their inimitable best.

A dejected teenager discovers that the universe is communicating with him through talismanic objects left behind in a seagull’s nest.  A community of girls held captive in a silk factory slowly transmute into human silkworms, spinning delicate threads from their own bellies, and escape by seizing the means of production for their own revolutionary ends. A massage therapist discovers she has the power to heal by manipulating the tattoos on a war veteran’s lower torso. When a group of boys stumble upon a mutilated scarecrow bearing an uncanny resemblance to the missing classmate they used to torment, an ordinary tale of high school bullying becomes a sinister fantasy of guilt and atonement. In a family’s disastrous quest for land in the American West, the monster is the human hunger for acquisition, and the victim is all we hold dear. And in the collection’s marvelous title story—an unforgettable parable of addiction and appetite, mortal terror and mortal love—two vampires in a sun-drenched lemon grove try helplessly to slake their thirst for blood.

Karen Russell is one of today’s most celebrated and vital writers—honored in The New Yorker’s list of the twenty best writers under the age of forty, Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists, and the National Book Foundation’s five best writers under the age of thirty-five.  Her wondrous new work displays a young writer of superlative originality and invention coming into the full range and scale of her powers.  


Have you ever held off finishing a story because you were too afraid to do so? Has that ever happened eight times in a row? That’s what happened with me as I read Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell. The aforementioned book is a collection of eight short stories. Each varying in genres. You get a little bit of a western, vampire, science fiction, humor, and contemporary drama. There’s something for everyone.

I can honestly say that the stories get progressively better. The first short story, the namesake of the novel, put me in Russell’s groove. She has a way of leading you to conclusions; letting your mind fill in the blanks. I suppose Russell’s signature is to leave the story a bit haunted. It’s what is unwritten that frighten me. My mind went to the worst conclusions. At the same time, the author had me wondering about humanity. It’s odd to hope that a vampire will resist temptation or to feel his emotional pain as he speaks of love, but you do.

Not only did Russell increase my vocabulary, but she also validated that some people were born to write. The way she puts words together, the way she describes scenes, the way she has the reader become emotionally involved and committed to characters in a short story amazed me. Some passages have stayed with me. I can only hope that the homunculus (new word!) narrating my story describes me similarly. Take a look at this quote that I saw instead of read from the story The New Veterans.

He walks into the room with an actual swagger, that sort of boastful indifference to gravity that Beverly associates with cats and Italian women.

While reading, I kept wondering how Russell was able to move between genres so easily. It would seem that she has focused on honing her writing skills on science fiction, but the next story has you reading about rooting for plankton against whales in Antarctica. I imagined her conducting research on different subject to perfect the legitimacy of each story. As imagined her work ethic, I realized just how brilliant of a writer she is.

Some stories were definite standouts for me.  Reeling for the Empire tells the story of women whose bodies are transformed into humanoid/silkworm forms so that they produce silk for a company. Proving Up was the first story I truly did not want to finish. I was frightened. It was as if Russell took a nightmare you may have had and wrote it down. I found myself wondering if I could take away my friend’s hurtful memories while reading The New Veterans. Finally, The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis took me the longest to read. I feared for a young boy that was bullied. I also feared for what was happening to his bullies.

One or two of the stories either didn’t apply to me at the moment or I just couldn’t get into. However, this is the best part about short stories. The commitment to finish a 400 page book that you’re waiting to get into isn’t there. What you aren’t into ends rather quickly and then you’re off to another story.

The last time I was this excited about reading short stories, it was when I was introduced to Shirley Jackson. Karen Russell is a writer’s writer. She defined how to build a story, lead the reader to actively be engaged in the story, and let the reader finish the story on their own. I highly recommend this book, if only to find out how others may have finished particular stories in their heads.

* Previously posted on Literati Literature Lovers

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